Sage Steele sat outdoors on the ESPN SportsCenter set Monday, a pristine Raymond James field behind her, and dispensed information while handling interviews and waltzing through the adrenaline rush of a one-hour live broadcast.
"I'm having a blast," said Steele, who serves as lead host for SportsCenter on the Road. "When you're on the road, in the elements, with things changing, with potential technical issues, you take a deep breath and you say, 'Here we go' and you talk sports, and you don't try to make it bigger than it is."
For Steele, 44, her work in Tampa leading up to the College Football national championship game represented a triumphant return to one of the most influential stops of her career. From 1998-2001, she worked in this market: first for WFTS-Ch. 28, then later for Fox Sports Florida.
In Tampa Bay, Steele, like everyone who covered the Bucs back then, managed the vacillating love-hate interview sessions of Warren Sapp. She forged influential relationships with coaches such as Tony Dungy and current ESPN colleague Herm Edwards. And she allowed an aspiring sportscaster named Erin Andrews to spend time shadowing her.
It was here where she married her husband, Jonathan Bailey, on the beach, and it was here where they scraped by on what she called a grilled cheese and peanut butter sandwich budget.
Most of all, it was here where her ascent truly began, elevating to Comcast Mid-Atlantic and eventually to ESPN -- the network she had aimed for ever since she told her parents at the age of 12 that she wanted to make a living talking sports.
Reaching her current lofty position, however, involved a journey rife with criticism, self doubt, struggles and an unbelievable moment when Steele thought she might abandon her dream career to sell cosmetics.
After landing at ESPN in 2007 -- she actually turned down her first offer from the network in 2004 to focus on family and the impending arrival of her second child -- Steele struggled as a SportsCenter anchor.
"I got thrown in too soon, and they acknowledged it," Steele said. "That meant the world to me but it was kind of too late, so I was like, 'What do we do now?' Fortunately, they saw my talent. I just needed time, and I needed more confidence after my start."
Producers shifted her to a lower role, doing SportsCenter updates for Mike & Mike and First Take. As she neared the end of her contract, Steele began to sell skin care products on the side, hosting parties at the homes of friends because she didn't believe the network would renew her deal.
"My kids at the time were 11 months, 2 and 4," said Steele, growing emotional and fighting back tears. "My husband was a stay-at-home dad, and I'm the sole breadwinner.
"I was afraid. 'How am I going to support my family?' Scary times. That's why I don't take (where I am today) for granted. I worked hard, but a lot of people work hard. I think I got lucky that they believed in me and gave me another chance."
Steele got a second three-year contract but said she's not sure she would have succeeded if not for the counsel of the late Stuart Scott, the longtime ESPN anchor who died of cancer in 2015. Scott helped nurture her through the difficulties, even yelling at her when she expressed doubts.
"He was like, 'You're letting them win,' them meaning everybody, whether it was peers or people upstairs who didn't believe in me," Steele explained. "He said, 'So you're going to let your dream go because people don't believe in you?' He just kept saying, 'Go do you.' But I had to figure out what 'you' was."
Steele eventually built up her abilities, and when Magic Johnson unexpectedly exited the network's NBA pregame show weeks before the beginning of the 2013 season, producers tabbed her to be the new host. She added the SportsCenter on the Road role in 2016 and will now anchor onsite, pre-event coverage at major events, including the Super Bowl, World Series and the Masters.
On Jan. 21, Johnson reunites with Steele and analyst Michael Wilbon for NBA Saturday Primetime.
Despite all the success, Steele said she's just learning now to blend in positives with her constant self-critiques. She still gets nervous. But it's a good nervous.
"At the NBA Finals last year, Game 7 (Cavaliers-Warriors)-- I'll never forget that moment," Steele smiled. "About 30 seconds out life flashed before me.
"But I no longer say, 'Gosh, I hope I don't screw this up.' Now I say, 'You've got this and never forget how fortunate you are to be here.'?"